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Intrepid Aspirations


A report from the 2004 Sundance Film Festival on what the future of Independent Cinema has in store.



"All you critics sit alone
You're no better than me for what you've shown
With your stomach pumps, and your crooked-ladder dreams
We could get together for some scenes."

On Sunday Sunday SUNDAY!!!  See a small mountain town catch its breath after a week-long tempest of over 100,000 cinema fiends all hopped up on a fresh, un-cut batch of Movie Madness.

"Sure, we get busy," says the gorgeous brunette showing me to my table at Burgie's, "but this was just crazy."

And so it goes, another January past for the residents of Park City, Utah.  Every year the place swells, with the number of visitors equalling over 13 times the town's regular population of 7,500.  Granted, January is not the only time of the year that Park City sees company, but there's no doubt that this is the peak of the influx.

While some are here strictly for the slopes, most come to check out the newest in Independent Cinema.  The Sundance Film Festival is certainly the biggest attraction, bringing in an estimated 75,000 people alone.  Then there's the Slamdance Film Festival, which too tempts thousands into the mountains.  And let's not forget Tromadance, X-Dance, and all the other Dances taking place at the same time.  However, while some folks manage to hit numerous Festivals during their stay in Park City, others pick one, and dive head-first into the mayhem, hoping to come out alive and kicking with visions of what the future of Cinema has to hold.  I belong to the latter group...at least, this time around.

Everyone has a dog in this town.  Some have chocolate labs, some have border collies, some have mixed breeds, and I counted four dogs who walk on only three legs.  Some have terriers, some have large beasts, and some have films they've put all their heart, soul, and cash into.

It's surprising (yet refreshing) how many filmmakers here have "day jobs;" many have used a chunk of their vacations days just to trek out to Park City.  For each of these warriors, their film was something they were set on making, a lust not dependant on financial backing.  I believe that's the main difference between "independent" films and the rest.  It's not about visual quality, nor is it about genre.  It's about having a Vision, and riding on that alone.

For underground filmmakers, the Sundance Film Festival is like the NFL Draft for aspiring quarterbacks.  Getting a piece accepted by the Sundance Institute means that it will be seen by a multitude of people who generally have an immense appreciation for Cinema, from film buffs to industry cats.  People from all over the world come to Park City every year to check out what Sundance has to offer, and for those picked to be part of the showcase, it's a dream come true.

Looking back, it's hard to believe that the 2004 Sundance Film Festival took only eleven days from the month of January.  It's also hard to believe that this all happened just a few short weeks ago.  The experience of attending the Festival seems like a lifetime in itself, one that grows deeper and stronger with each new year.

Yes, technically the Festival Frenzy lasts 11 days, this year from the 15th through the 25th.  It starts out slow, beginning on a Thursday with a few Opening Night parties and screenings, and then gradually the momentum builds through Friday.  During these first days, it's easy to get around town, and the busses are rarely filled to the point that at least one seat isn't open.  This is when it's best to just relax, and get some sleep, for that's a hard thing to come by once things start picking up.  Check out some films, roam around town, and feel the jitters grow.

By Saturday, Park City is officially a madhouse, and will remain so for the following week.  As early as 8:30am, it feels like something has exploded.  People are crammed into busses like sardines, packed together with no room to breathe, and the smell of hot dogs coming from one mouth floods the shuttle's air.

Of course, folks don't seem to grasp that only so many people can fit into these things comfortably, and they shove their way into the bus until the driver takes off.  I saw one poor bastard learn the hard way not to stand too close to the exit, for when the doors shut, his Abercrombie & Fitch scarf became wedged for a moment.  His eyes bulged out of his head, and he started flopping about like he'd just been dropped from the gallows.


In order to do this right, you have to force yourself awake at unholy hours, since the screenings tend to start at 9am.  Too much of this behavior is likely unhealthy, but what the hell- it's a Festival, and a little recklessness feeds the Soul.

Getting up at the sickening hour of 7am can pay off, especially if it's in order to see something like Primer.  This is Smart Film at its best; in the tradition of old-school "Twilight Zone," Primer keeps you on edge and wondering, all the while thoroughly entertained.

This is the first film for Shane Carruth, who not only wrote and directed the feature, but also plays Aaron, one of the lead characters.  That's hard to believe, for this is an immaculate saga that can easily hold its own next to any other movie currently out in theaters.  More so than most films that discuss inventions, Primer makes everything super realistic, tossing aside shiny gadgets for more subtle mechanisms.

Aaron and Abe(played by David Sullivan) are two of a group of four inventors, who are striving to create the ultimate error-checking device.  In their trials, they inadvertently come up with something far superior to any mere piece of computer hardware, but this discovery comes with a hefty price.  They quickly decide to keep their partners (and everyone else) unaware of the revelation, for they realize that they've developed something that's much too valuable to market.

Especially interesting is the dialogue, as it's technical almost to the point of being incomprehensible.  After all, there are many aspects of technological inventions that not many people understand, but whereas most films of this type attempt to translate such into more understandable lingo, Primer keeps it real, and thus adds a bit of confusion.  I guess in this way, it's somewhat like Pi, but only because of the enigmatic discussions betwixt the inventors.

This is not to say that the entire film is hard to understand, for in fact it's rather simple in its complexity.  Pulling something like that off is a job for only a true Jedi Master- and Carruth has proven himself to be just that.  This movie keeps you thinking long after leaving the theater, with the question "What's worse?  Thinking you're being paranoid, or knowing you should be?" resonating in your mind.


For anyone who has a strong phobia of the ocean, Open Water is the most terrifying film ever made.  This is no exaggeration; less than five minutes after the movie, I called my girlfriend, and begged her to promise me that she'd never touch the sea.

Based on a true story, it focuses on a married couple who go out on a diving expedition, only to get left behind in the middle of the ocean.  In every direction their horizon consists of nothing but waves, a desolation that grows thicker with each passing hour they float helplessly in waters known for its shark population.  And while sharks aren't the only thing they have to deal with (jellyfish and utter darkness are among the cruel realities the couple faces), there's no getting around the constant dread of something coming up from below without warning, and sinking its teeth into human flesh.

Let me put it this way: I saw the film in a screening reserved for Press and Industry folk, a group who is not easily surprised by movies.  At several points in Open Water, the entire audience jumped practically out of their skin.

What makes this better than any other shark film is its realistic feel.  The production/directorial team of Laura Lau and Chris Kentis utilize no special effects in Open Water, and thus all the fins splashing about are attached to live monsters.  Starring Daniel Travis and super-hot Blanchard Ryan, this movie feeds on one of our most primal fears, and gives an incredible tale of human fragility as well as perseverance.  Furthermore, it shows that you don't need elaborate action sequences to keep your heart pounding.


With the atmosphere of American politics being more chaotic than ever, there's a sense of urgency that inevitably comes up in today's films.  In Napoleon Dynamite, we find a true Leader, a young man who promises that, "If you elect me, I'll make all your wildest dreams come true."  This quiet fella named Pedro may just be running for Class President of some Idaho high school, but still, our nation would certainly be safe in his guidance.

Hands down the funniest film of the Sundance Film Festival, Napoleon Dynamite is director Jared Hess' first feature, and based on his short film called Peluca which actually played in last year's Slamdance Film Festival.  Jon Heder plays the title character, an alleged ninja with mad skills.  Don't let the askew red afro fool you- Napoleon Dynamite is as fly as Dolemite, in his own peculiar ways.

Napoleon is the driving force behind Pedro's campaign for President, but like all political figures, his home life is a whole nother ding job.  After his grandmother is injured in an ATV accident, Uncle Rico comes to stay, bringing his own havoc.  Napoleon's older brother Kip is busy picking up chicks in chat-rooms, and then there's the pet llama Tina with her finicky appetite.

The adventures found in Napoleon Dynamite are relative to anyone who was a "dork" and/or "nerd" in high school, and Hess portrays these with a masterful eye.  Even better than Revenge of the Nerds, this film is filled with intelligent humor, without ever resorting to raunchy or empty jokes.


Believe it or not, some people aren't born in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, or any other place where a living can be made doing something artistically fulfilling.  Furthermore, some of these people can't afford to go to college for artistic career options.  These people are the ones who constitute the blood of American Society: the blue-collar workers, the laborers, the people who work in plants, the mechanics, those of U.S. with little choice but to work a mundane job in order to put food on the table.

Below the Belt gives a bizarre look at such an existence, with an eccentric journey through what it's like to work at a factory...sort of, with plenty of strange embellishment.  Dobbit (played by Robert Knott) has just signed up to work as a "Checker" at a plant where "The Corporation" produces "Units."  As far as details of what's being made, that's it, but the truth is that it doesn't matter.  This is more of a take on the strange behavior within this type of bureaucracy, from the lowest rung on the pole to the highest.

Dobbit reports to his Supervisor, a weasel named Merkin (played by Tom Bower) who gladly puts his petty job before all else.  In fact, he later tells that he was working when his wife died whilst giving birth.  Yeah, that's how dedicated he is to overseeing the production of these elusive Units.

Being that this assignment has taken Dobbit away from his home, he now lives on the factory grounds, sharing a room with another Checker named Hanrahan (played by Xander Berkeley), a man who, like Merkin, has given years of his life to The Corporation.  Hanrahan is certainly not happy about Dobbit invading his domicile, and he makes his seniority clear the moment they meet.

Further the story goes, through an odd set of events that, while exaggerated, detail the stupefying climb of a corporate ladder.  However, the film never takes itself too seriously, and never comes out as an attack on all corporations.  Rather, it merely explores the pettiness that all too often exists in that kind of environment.

Directed by Robert M. Young, this movie is based on a play written by Richard Dresser.  To fully take this tale from the stage to the screen, Young uses computer animation for the entire backdrop and most of the scenery, and the result is a beautiful and incredible landscape for an equally remarkable movie.  At times reminiscent of Brazil, the true grit of Below the Belt is in the script itself, a poetic masterpiece full of radiant insight and brilliant humor.


You can't get much creepier than that, and it's just that type of unsettling suspense that fuels the movie Saw.  Right from the start of the film, you know that things aren't kosher by any means.  A young man named Adam wakes up chained to a wall in some large warehouse bathroom, where he finds two other men with him.  One, Dr. Lawrence Gordon, is chained to the opposite wall, and the other is laying between them in a puddle of blood with a hole in his head, a gun in one hand, and a tape player in the other.

Lawrence and Adam soon realize that they're toys of a deranged sociopath, who has them in a twisted game of survival and repentance.  The madman, dubbed "Jigsaw" by the police, talks through a freaky puppet on a tricycle, and kills people in ways where they technically kill themselves.

While the film occasionally resembles Se7en, it moreover stands on its own, with a killer more sadistic, and a plot much more dynamic.  Through an onslaught of flashbacks, director James Wan delivers a cunning thriller that keeps you guessing straight to the credits.  And the badass score by Charlie Clouser (whose work with the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Rob Zombie are always album highlights) gives the movie a nervous yet intriguing feel that sucks you in from start to finish.

This is the first feature for Wan, who wrote the screenplay with Leigh Whannell.  In true underground guerilla fashion, they developed the story thinking that they were going to fund it themselves, but somewhere along the line, they got some decent backing.  Nonetheless, they stayed true to their Vision, and therefore the strength of this mystery remains in the story itself.

Whannell plays Adam, Cary Elwes plays Dr. Gordon, and Danny Glover plays Officer Tapp, a policeman obsessed with the Jigsaw case.  You never really know what's going to happen next, and even as the credits roll, you're left wondering what just happened- just like in The Usual Suspects, you're left with that "No shit!" fascination.


Let's face it: crime can be very attractive.  Anyone who watches "The Sopranos" will attest that the show is worse than crack in its addiction; the first two installments of The Godfather trilogy won Academy Awards (as did Goodfellas, Bonnie and Clyde, Pulp Fiction, and Prizzi's Honor, among others); and movies like Little Caesar, True Romance, and Carlito's Way are considered classics by most counts.  From The Public Enemy to Scarface to The Professional, audiences constantly find themselves cheering on the villains of a film, whether it's repeating the "ATTICA!" chant after watching Dog Day Afternoon or finding the profoundly romantic side to Natural Born Killers.

The newest addition to this group is Stander, a film based on the true story of Andre Stander.  Initially a police captain in Johannesburg during the late 70's, Stander grew disgusted with the hypocrisy he saw in his job, especially after he killed an unarmed man during a riot.  He was doing his job, so he's told, and therefore it was OK.

This is something that tore at Stander's conscience, and one day he decided on an ironic treatment for his guilt- rob banks.  He'd hold up a bank on his lunch break, and then return a few hours later as an officer of the Law to take the report.

Since most people aren't entirely stupid, this didn't last too long, and Stander soon found himself behind bars...but only for a short while.  He escaped prison, and went on to lead the most notorious heist gang in South Africa's history.

Especially interesting about this story is that most people were more amazed by Stander than afraid, and his brazen style of thievery attracted all sorts of sensationalism.  Nonetheless, he still had the shame of his iniquities to deal with, despite how much money he boosted.

Like all the great crime movies, there's a strong sense of morality in Stander, even if it seems to come from an unlikely source.  And for the ladies, Thomas Jane (in the role of Stander) shows plenty of naked toches, a change of pace for cool, adrenaline-packed movies.  I guess that's fair, since we've had decades of naked women, but even with the male arseness, this is a movie that will easily join the ranks of the other classics.

For people who remember Johannesburg in those chaotic times of apartheid, director Bronwen Hughes has captured the feel marvelously, at least according to a buddy I saw the film with, who grew up in nearby Cape Town.  For hours afterwards (and into the next day, even), she told me of all sorts of memories rekindled by Stander, and constantly reminded me, "That's exactly how it was."

So, whether it's a sense of nostalgia for South Africa you seek, or if you're just into vicariously being a criminal, Stander is certainly one of the "must-see" films of this coming year.  Besides, any movie that has a song by Tricky (his remake of Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Night of Chaos," nonetheless) is worth checking out based on that alone.


There's an incredible factor about Tarnation that makes it all the more amazing: it cost "$218.32" to make, according to director/screenwriter Jonathan Caouette.  That may be somewhat dubious, since this film is a collection of footage spanning twenty years, and camcorders plus recordable tapes alone cost more than that.  Still, there's no doubt that this film is a landmark, in that it cost next to nothing to make a sheer paragon.

Partially a chronicle of Caouette's life, as well as a glance of the overall broken existence that the 80's helped create, Tarnation is impossible to classify.  At its core, the film is a painfully beautiful self-portrait of Caouette, as we see him grow through some amazing turmoil from the time he was a wee lad up to the present.  It's also a homage of sorts to his mother, who's had a rough hand of life to deal with.

Before Jonathan was born, his mother Renee was not the stereotypical "normal" child, but it's not that she was a maniac who drove burning Fiats into crowded markets or anything like that.  She was simply artistic, and had different ways of expressing herself.  Her parents were told that shock therapy might be the "answer" for her, so they gave it a shot.  Yep.  Suffice it to say that her life was not unlike Hell from then on.

At any rate, she gave birth to Jonathan, but eventually became unable to take care of him.  Going between foster homes to his grandparents' house, Jonathan finds an outlet through filmmaking, and from an early age starts to play around with cameras.  Some of the footage is goofy, with Jonathan playing a myriad of characters, but even then, his performances show a powerfully moving essence.

All the footage is put together in a precise collage, with music from Nick Drake and Iggy Pop joining others in the journey.  At times hilarious, at times heart-breaking, often both, Tarnation is a true work of Art, something with the staying power found in the works of Vincent van Gogh, Bob Dylan, and Stanley Kubrick.  Whatever this movie cost to make, Jonathan Caouette is nevertheless a true visionary, and has made an irrevocably ground-breaking film with Tarnation.


Shining bright throughout the Sundance Film Festival are the Short Films.  Out of the 3,500 entries, about 72 are selected to be part of the Festival, and these are often vehicles for filmmakers to get their chance to prove their worth for a full-length movie.  Some play before features, and others are shown as part of a Shorts Program.  With the acute focus that goes along with making a Short Film, this year offered a bunch of remarkable work, and covered all sorts of ground.

Teratoma defies explanation, but set a provocative pace for PrimerTeratoma (which Webster defines as "a tumor made up of different types of tissue") opens with dialogue playing backwards, and a man who has diagnosed himself with some form of cancer.  It then spins off into a realm where time blurs and imagination is juxtaposed with reality, leaving you breathless upon conclusion.

Tomo played before Open Water, and it too helped prepare the audience for the feature, dishing out a weird sense of isolation.  Set some time in the future, Tomo is the story of a man who crashed his space craft on an arctic wilderness, stranded with an android who has a taste for robotic porn.  The bond between man and robot is elevated to another level with this, and the feelings between both bounce all over the place.

The best Short of the Festival, though, was part of Shorts Program III, a spectacular piece called Pretty Dead Girl.  Proclaimed "a musical necromance," it's the story of a mortician who, well, is a necrophilliac.  Don't worry, though- the idea alone is repulsive enough, and director Shawn Ku leaves it at that.  The film goes on to tell of a beautiful co-worker who has a crush on this guy, and it's all a big (well, only 22 minutes long) musical that's funny as hell, and even sexy, despite the macabre setting.

That said, all the films in this group were great.  Little Black Boot is perhaps the coolest rendition of the "Cinderella" tale I've ever seen; Deep Silence is a powerful tale of two young boys whose sense of adventure takes a tragic turn; The Pact is an insightful drama that looks at the bonds between family; and Talking with Angels is a touching film plump with soul and compassion.  Still, Pretty Dead Girl was the gem of the bunch, and a testament that Ku has what it takes to be a true Jedi.


Of course, no Sundance Film Festival is complete without the infamous parties.  The Institute throw a few themselves, and those are usually contained and controlled to a reasonable level.  Then there's the hoards of talent agencies, magazines, television channels, etc., who host their own gatherings.  These have varying levels of excitement, as well as general demeanor.

Take ICM for example, since their annual party is considered one of the biggest.  I reckon this has to do with the fact that ICM (International Creative Management, Inc.) represents some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, from movie stars to Pulitzer Prize winning authors.  This year the shindig was held atop a complex dubbed The Village At The Lift, in a two-story tent that had a maximum capacity of 299 people.  It's suffice to say that there may have been a tad more than that at some point in the evening, but all in good fun...well, for the most part.

My schedule was open in the time before the fiesta, so I showed up a bit early, and opted to have a drink in a bar on the ground floor of the complex.  The bartender asked me if I was with the "private party," and thinking she meant the ICM thing, I said I was.  Just as I finished my drink, a man approached me, introduced himself, and began what seemed like small talk- but quickly proved to be an interrogation.  He informed me that this had nothing to do with the ICM party, and he made it clear that I was not welcome.  He demanded I leave, followed me like a parasite as I went to the bar to return my glass, and shuffled me out the door.

So be it, I figured.  The truth is that the majority of people involved with the Festival are decent and cool, so it's easy to shrug off assholes like that, as they're not too common.  Besides, the ICM party started soon thereafter, and before I knew it, I was sipping rum and having a good ole' time.

ICM did have a guest list, and while they didn't let anyone in who wasn't invited, there was still an incredible line outside, crowding around the entrance in hopes to get in, or at least just see one of the many "celebrities" in attendance.  It's a surreal thing, being in a room packed with faces you recognize from a screen, but you soon realize that they are in fact just people.  Furthermore, almost everyone there seemed truly interested in the films playing this year, and while some were probably there just for the sake of the Big Party, most seemed to be there in solidarity for the Heart of Independent Film.

And since this is not a gossip column, I'll just leave it at that...but not before I mention that the scumbag from earlier intruded my serenity once more.  I had actually just left the party, and was walking down Main Street when I ran into a couple friends who were about to head in.  I decided to reenter with them, and hang out for another round or two.  Just as we walk through the door, this bottomfeeder stops us, citing the party's breach of capacity limits.  I was already aware of this, and told my friends that I'd just catch up with them later, as I had already been a part of the crazy gathering.  As I started to walk away, the swine snarls at me, "Yeah, I remember you from before, and you're not getting in here either.  Now get out of here!  That's right, just go home."

I thought of mentioning that I had just had a drink with the gentleman who organized the party, but there was no need.  I was feeling too Good for any turmoil, so I just laughed at him, and went about my way.

(NOTE TO ICM: I think this guy's name is Dave or something, but I didn't pay too much attention to him.  While I don't think he is employed by your company, he was "helping out" with crowd control, but he's a worthless piece of garbage.  He thinks he's a big Star, but he's just a big pile of shit.)

Then there was the Happy Hour sponsored by Stuff Magazine to take advantage of, something that I was obligated to, considering the amount of scorn I've dished out to the publication over the years.  After all, they invited me to their gala.

The parties are actually a good time, all in all.  Groups like IFC (Independent Film Channel) and Daily Variety do their part to pay tribute to the filmmakers of the Festival, and alongside the Sundance Institute, they provide a much-needed break from the Madness, even if they inevitably create a little of their own.

To end it all, the Institute's party following the Awards Ceremony was again the best of the Festival.  They basically took over a small district called Easy Street, which is a promenade lined with shops, bars, and restaurants.  In each place, there was free drinks and food, each one different and delicious.  Even though it snowed that evening, it was fun to be outside, walking around the crowded Easy Street, filled with the high that only true Cinema can give.


This may sound warped in every way, but the rudest people I found were the same group I was officially a part of: the Press.  Waiting for Napoleon Dynamite to begin, I was reminded why I loathe these people.

How can they be so pompous?  The very select few are actually educated critics, at least in terms of cinema.  The rest are those who once dreamt of making movies, and when that didn't materialize, they turned to journalism.  And that's being gracious, assuming that all the Press here have some sort of genuine interest in Film.

As with all Art, I feel that only filmmakers have the right to say a film "sucks," at least for any record.

Longing for the movie to begin, and I'm fighting myself to stay.  I'm surrounded by self-serving hacks, superficial curs who think they're better than everyone because of who they've talked to.  None of these people seem to appreciate the honor it is to be in the position they are- holders of Press Credentials for the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.

Aside from the free screenings, there's things like the Press & Filmmakers Receptions that the Institute hosts, which are small galas where Press get to roam around the Kimball Art Center, drink the complimentary wine and vodka, eat the free food, and talk with filmmakers who don't rely on some big publicity corporation to do the PR leg work.  Not to scorn anyone (except the Press of course)...

This is where you meet the rookie filmmakers (along with some veterans), and find out what they're all about.  The Institute is hard-core in their dedication to these people, and they will hunt you down to introduce you to the various artists.  I for one welcome this, as it's a chance to shoot the breeze with these cats before they become jaded against the Press.

So, even though it's rad as anything to get to attend the Sundance Film Festival with Press Credentials, I must admit that there were plenty of times I'd keep my Badge tucked away, so that folks wouldn't associate me with the rest of the slime.


Even worse than the general Press, though, is vermin like Randy.

Randy is 32, single, and lives in New York City.  Every January for the past six years, he's been coming to Park City for free.  The magazine he writes for used to be the sole funding for his trip, but at some point, Randy discovered there's money to be made from die-hard movie buffs.

This year Randy has Press Credentials, as he has for the past two years at Sundance.  This means that he can see virtually any film he wants to without cost.  He can either go to a Press Screening, or call the film's publicist, who will most likely hook him up with a ticket to a General Screening.

Nonetheless, Randy buys a bunch of tickets every year.  Then he goes to the screenings, and scalps them off.  And it's not just to make his money back; he sells them to people for up to $50 a ticket.

"You make most of the cash towards the end of the Festival," he informed me.  "That's when people know there's no other way they're going to see the film, at least not while they're here.  The other night, I sold tickets to a guy for a film he was in!  He drove all the way out from L.A. to see the movie, but they didn't have any tickets left for him, and the box office was all sold out.  I gave him a break, though, and just sold him the ticket for $20."

The day after Randy told me this, I found him passed out drunk in a field off of Park Avenue.  I took his wallet, pissed on his face, and made my way back to my hotel.  The next morning, I went to the Sundance Merchandise hub, and used all his cash to buy a bunch of Festival trinkets.


Rants aside, the 2004 Sundance Film Festival was a blast, and the Institute has continued to uphold their Integrity.  So many barriers were broken this year that it's hard to mention them all, but I will say that each movie I saw this year (except for one, that needs no discussion) is something that I can't wait to see again.

So, that's about it. The best place for pizza in Park City is Davanza's, and the best burgers are at Burgie's.  As for Independent Film, the best is coming soon, hopefully to a theater near you.

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